‘Tiger King’ is a documentary you need to see to believe

If you’ve spent any time on social media over the last few days, you probably know that there are two topics dominating most online conversations. One of those is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic that’s got most people stuck in their homes. The other is the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

While both are really interesting, “Tiger King” is far more entertaining.

As you may have guessed by the title, this documentary offers viewers a pretty wild ride. Seeking to provide an inside look at the world of big cat breeding in the United States, the series spends most of its time zeroing in on one private zoo owner in particular — Joe Exotic, who operated the G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, until he went to federal prison over a murder-for-hire scheme.

Directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, “Tiger King” is delivered in seven parts over a five-hour span. With each new episode, the series only sinks its claws deeper into the viewer; like watching a car crash, it’s impossible to look away. Just when you think the show’s already-insane story can’t get any stranger, it does — every single time. I personally stayed up until 4:30 a.m. the other day watching the entire series in one straight shot, getting up off my couch only for the occasional snack and/or bathroom break. And to be honest, I’m kind of sad that I burned through the episodes as quickly as I did. I should have spread them out for a chance to gawk at the series even longer.

Those of you who haven’t yet experienced “Tiger King” may be asking yourself, “How much more entertaining can this series be than any of the other crime or animal documentaries out there?” The answer is A LOT MORE. The documentary is massively captivating for many reasons.

For one, it gives a great inside look at the nefarious world of big cat breeding and privately owned zoos. That alone would be enough to hold the attention of many viewers that probably don’t know just how many big cats are locked in cages all across the country; that there are more tigers in cages in America than there are in the wild across the world. I certainly didn’t realize the prevalence of this issue until watching, anyhow.

But more importantly, at least in terms of pure entertainment value, this documentary’s biggest draw is its eccentric cast of characters — none of which are more off-the-wall than Joe Exotic himself.

Even if you haven’t seen the show, by now there is a good chance you are familiar with Joe’s look. If you’ve been on Facebook or Twitter recently, maybe you’ve seen a meme or two of a slender man with pistols on each hip, donning a puffy animal-print button-down shirt, and a bright yellow mullet and goatee. That’s our boy Joe, a self-described “redneck.” He started a tiger zoo as a way to honor the memory of his late brother, but ultimately became unhinged as his compulsion to grow his zoo and fame completely overcame him.

Joe is fascinating for many reasons. Despite his loud personality, he’s described as genuinely charismatic by all of those who know him best. So charismatic, in fact, that he’s got not one, but two husbands (at the same time) through much of the documentary — two husbands that even Joe himself admits are straight men. He was also charming enough to earn a cult-like devotion from his coworkers. One such worker was back on the job in a matter of days after having her arm nearly ripped off by a tiger; she opted to have it amputated instead of undergoing a medical procedure that could have saved it, fearing the bad publicity that prolonged hospital treatment might bring to Joe’s zoo.

But for as likable as he can be at times, Joe is also very unstable, and the documentary does a great job of fleshing this out. For instance, Joe’s lust for fame leads to him paying a camera crew to follow him around for a web series he created. But his web show — at least the parts of it that we see in the doc — is basically just a platform for him to rail against animal rights activists. In particular, he uses it to bash and threaten Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue, who is essentially his archenemy. He not only abuses mannequins on his show that have been dressed up to resemble Baskin, he also shoots them regularly (Joe has a lot of guns). Heck, he even finds a Baskin look-alike to star in one of his music videos (Did I not mention that Joe also writes and records his own tiger-themed country music?). To say Joe is obsessed with Carole would be an incredible understatement.

But just when you think you have a sense of who the good and bad guys are in this whole thing, the documentary hints heavily at the possibility that Baskin has committed serious crimes herself. And even if you don’t buy the most outrageous claims against her (I won’t spoil it here by telling you, but it’s not something I saw coming) it shows her to be fairly hypocritical if nothing else.

The documentary is filled with many other notable characters besides Joe and Carole, like Bhagavan “Doc” Antle and Jeff Lowe, each of whom could have their own documentaries based entirely on them. In fact, if I have one knock against this series, it’s that there are so many wild characters (with equally insane backstories) that too many things seem to get glossed over; things that could have their own episodes dedicated to them get mentioned briefly, and then the series just moves on. Sometimes there’s so much craziness stuffed into each episode that things get a little convoluted. “Tiger King” could have been expanded to 20 parts or more to give each crazy tangent its well-deserved screen time, and I don’t think too many viewers would have complained.

Needless to say, the whole documentary builds up to Joe’s arrest on murder-for-hire charges. Any guesses as to who he might have been trying to kill?

Personally, I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that “Tiger King” is every bit as captivating as previous hit Netflix documentaries like “Making a Murderer” and “FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.” There have been very few times in my life that I’ve binge-watched an entire docuseries in one sitting, but this one was definitely worth it. Now let’s keep our fingers crossed for a season two.


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